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The poetry of a life

It was while I was pastor of the Brooks, Alberta, Christian Reformed Church that something changed. I was visiting Joe and Riek Duenk some time after I had led the funeral service for Riek’s mother. I remember when the conversation veered off in an uncomfortable direction. The comment went something like this: “We were a bit disappointed by how impersonal Mom’s funeral was. The whole service, you referred to her as Mrs. Ekkel. Nobody called her Mrs. Ekkel.”

I don’t remember much else about that long ago conversation, but it gave me enough of a jolt to stay with me. Of course, even after some 30 years, my defenses want to go up. Wouldn’t it be rude for a 30-something pastor to refer to senior citizen by her first name? And her dementia made getting to know her quite a challenge. But this much was unavoidable – my approach was a hindrance to bringing comfort.  

What do I now do differently now from when I started out? Most recently, before conducting a funeral, I asked the grieving mother for her son’s full name. It was Patrick Allen Chapin. I have learned to ask, “Is that how you want me to refer to him? I know him as Rick.”  “Oh no,” she replied. “He hated to be called Patrick.” One of the things I have learned is, when in doubt, ask. In fact, even when I am not in doubt, it is wise to ask and not assume. 

Even when I have conducted funerals for those who were complete strangers to me, I have discovered that I can “get to know them” by asking the same kind of questions I have learned to ask when I meet new people. Where were they from? What were their families like? What did they do? A surprisingly revealing question is often: What were their interests and hobbies? 

Personal history questions are revealing, even if I think I know the answers. This gives the family a chance to remember, but it also gives me the opportunity to learn what their perceptions are. I ask them to share their memories. Usually this brings out some poignant anecdotes. But in one of the most disconcerting conversations I ever had in this vein, the children reported that their elderly father had repeatedly abused them. You can imagine how this changed the dynamic of the service!

Another avenue of inquiry I have found especially helpful is when I ask the family to give me some adjectives to describe their loved one. Here personality and character are revealed – caring, sense of humour, artistic, musical, dependable, handy, church father. There was even an ex-con who became a deacon and joked about it. Of course, not everything that comes out with this question is pleasant either. In one particular conversation, it emerged that the person’s life was a lesson in how to live so that no one really even wants to attend your funeral.

During the funeral service I put together the highlights of what I have gleaned in an introduction that lasts about two minutes. In the ensuing years, I am thankful to report that I have been told that my funeral services are among my most effective efforts to proclaim the gospel. Much of this is to the credit of Joe and Riek, who spoke the truth in love.

The other major factor that has shaped my funerals, and for that matter my preaching in general, is what I think of as “finding my voice.” At some point, poets, artists, and composers find their voice or style. For me that meant going from an academic model to a more creative model. I look for one or two word pictures that serve as bridges between the deceased and Scripture. I wonder, “If the person’s life is a poem, what is that poem like?” For the funeral of a farmer, horticulturist, or garden enthusiast, I might draw on scriptures relating God as the cultivator of life. I once did a funeral for an artistic person who died at a relatively young age, and just as an artist makes paintings of various dimensions, some of them quite small, so the Lord sets the measure of our lives according to his design and purpose. For a homemaker or builder, the imagery is rich.  Not every life lends itself equally well to this approach and it does not do to force the issue, but the poetry of a life is now my usual starting point. 

 

Cemetery Weeds
In memory of George Wassenaar and Colleen Kiers

I read the Shepherd’s Psalm
over these my stricken sheep
to sing them to their sleep.

Now, though weeks have gone,
no grass has grown
over these my stricken sheep.
 
Dismayed, I uproot the weeds,
and so still my vigil keep
over these my stricken sheep.
 
Lord, uproot the cursed deed
that lets the ungrass grow
over these my stricken sheep.
 
Sing soon, my Shepherd who vigil keeps,
over these Your stricken sheep
to upraise the dead from sleep.                              
 
 
Rock Song
In Memory of Don Voskuil (lover of geology)

I will sing a new song to the rock of ages,
I will breathe a prayer of praise to God, my refuge.
 
The Lord is my rock, I shall not be moved.
 
He gives me refuge in His strength.
He brings me to rest in the shelter of the Almighty.
He refreshes me in the shadow of His presence.
 
He guides my feet me on firm paths;
in His way there are no stones to stumble,
for He is the rock of our salvation.
 
Even though I walk through deadly quakes,
and the mountains fall into the sea,
I am never petrified,
for you are with me.
In your unshakable love and kindness
I am forever secure.
 
He feeds me with honey from the rock,
and I drink streams of living water from the crags.
 
Surely goodness and mercy will protect me all the days of my life,
and he will set me forever on the rock that is higher than I.
 

Graceful Dissonance  
In memory of Neil Cupido, violinist and pilot

How those brothers played
the Lord’s song that Sunday –
a musical trinity
whose stringed instruments
quieted the troubled flock:
“The Lord my Shepherd holds me
Within his tender care.”
He carried a melody all his own
with, now and then,
a graceful dissonance.
 
It was not my recent flight,
but an air for strings
that first drew my thoughts
back to his gliding fingers
and rising song:
“Thy rod and staff shall cheer me
In death’s dark vale and shade,
For Thou wilt then be near me;
I shall not be afraid.”
 
But afterward the precise arrangement
of those remembered pastures below
composed themselves
into Psalm twenty-three
accompanied by the skilful
fragile flight
of the violin
that was shattered,
charred, consumed
in the violence
of his crash.
 
Did the Shepherd’s hand provide
for His sheep also then
in death, a dark
yet graceful dissonance?
Yes, also then.

  • Poems and photo also by Joe Veltman. Joe is a retired pastor living in Madison, Wis.

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